The AtHome Pilgrim

Musings at a Slower Pace


Philly area, Pennsylvania, USA
"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita," I find myself still asking some of the same questions I did when I was just a punk kid. The Big Things confuse me. Fortunately, though, many little things delight and amuse me, and some Big Things--my wife, our kids, our bird and bunny visitors, food, baseball--make me very, very happy. In my pilgrimage, I try to be guided by the wisdom of dear old Auntie Mame: "Life is a banquet!"


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MARCH 29, 2010 9:23AM

The Civil Rights Movement Hits Home (a Memory)

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She was simply driving a car. That was her crime: driving a car.


Well, more than that. She was a white woman driving a car with a black man in it.


Compounding that crime, the car had out-of-state plates. She was an agitator.


And she would die for these crimes.


She was spotted at a traffic light near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. Four Klansmen saw her, and they quickly acted as jury and judge. She was guilty as charged, and the sentence was death. And they knew just who would be her executioners.


When the light changed, the woman started driving east toward Montgomery. The car with the Klansmen went after her. They accelerated, trying to catch up. At some point, she must have understood what was happening and must have accelerated too. It took the Klan car more than 20 miles to catch up to her.


When they did, someone shot twice, but it only took one bullet in the back of the head, severing her spinal cord, to put her away. Surprisingly, no shots hit her passenger.


Her car ran into a ditch. The Klansmen stopped and came back to inspect their handiwork. The passenger knew enough to pretend that he was dead, his only hope for escaping that fate. Covered as he was with the woman’s blood, he might have looked it. Satisfied, the Klansmen returned to their car and drove off.


The passenger, Leroy Molton, 19, eventually got out of the car and began running. Some time later, a truck carrying marchers back to Selma picked Molton up, and he was safe.



The martyr was Viola Liuzzo. Her story, which ended so horribly on the evening of March 25, had begun weeks before.


In January 1965, a Selma civil rights group and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. Martin Luther King’s organization, began weeks of protests over the lack of voting rights for blacks. In one demonstration, an Alabama state trooper shot protestor Jimmy Lee Jackson, who died soon after. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), called for a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, to protest the shooting. SNCC’s John Lewis and SCLC’s Hosea Williams planned the march.


The marchers set out on Sunday, March 7, defying a ban on their protest from Alabama Governor George Wallace. At the southern end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge,  they were met by an array of Alabama state troopers and deputies, who attacked with tear gas, dogs, and nightsticks. Dozens of marchers sustained injuries, some as serious as Lewis’s fractured skull. They call it “Bloody Sunday.”


Liuzzo, who  saw television news coverage of the beatings, was outraged.


King came to Selma to complete the march. He asked a federal judge for a restraining order to prevent Wallace from stopping the marchers, but did not receive one quickly. On March 9, then, King led 2,500 others to the point of the attack, knelt in a moment of silence, and then turned around and went back into Selma. (That decision subjected King to intense criticism from some in the movement.)


The restraining order finally came on March 17, and four days later the march began. From the 21st to the 25th, the protestors marched along U.S. 80. On the final day, some 25,000 or so gathered at the Montgomery capitol building to hear King speak.


By then, Viola Liuzzo was in Alabama—in fact, she had been for several days. A part-time university student in Detroit, she had joined a rally held in sympathy for the Selma marchers back on the March 16. There, she decided that the cause was her cause and, after saying goodbye to her husband by phone, drove off to Alabama.


When she arrived, Liuzzo was assigned to the transportation team, driving marchers back to Selma at the end of each day’s march. On the evening of the 25th, she and Molton—a local activist—were making just another one of several trips when by ill chance she found herself in the wrong red light at the wrong time.



There are many fascinating and appalling things about Liuzzo’s death and important things about the Selma march, which spurred the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.  But I’m not going to tell those stories.


Instead, I’d like you to envision a kid not yet eleven and a half watching the Today show before school the morning after Liuzzo’s death, hearing the news that a 39-year-old mother of five from Detroit had been shot and killed down in Alabama because she was trying to do the right thing.


The news smacked him.


He thought about those semi-orphaned children, living in his own city. Hearing her getting ready for work, he thought about his own mother and what he would do had it been her. And he wondered how somebody could kill a person like that.


That’s the day that the civil rights movement hit home. That’s the day that he absorbed the idea that violent opposition—any opposition—to the simple call for fairness was just wrong.


Now, you can say that this is a fairly shallow and perhaps even racist attitude. (You only cared when a white woman was killed?) There were, after all, plenty—far too many—blacks who were martyred in the struggle for civil rights. Where was that kid’s outrage then? Why didn’t he care about them? Viola Liuzzo was hardly the most significant or the most innocent victim of the segregationists’ attacks.


Perhaps you’d be right. I’d like to think it’s more shallowness than racism. In 1965, he was just a naif, a snotty-nosed kid more concerned with being teased, being pimpled, and being on Jeopardy. Those other deaths had not seeped into his unconsciousness. They hadn’t crossed the great divide into his thick skull.


Later, the kid learned those other stories and was moved to mourning and to profound respect for the victims and their families. Later, in his work, he tried as often as possible to relate clearly and with conviction the story of the movement and the heroism of the people in it. Later, in his life, he tried to demonstrate the principles of acceptance and equality.


That morning, though, the nearness of this awful, unnecessary death clicked something inside him.


That morning, he grasped the simple truth that segregation and racism were just wrong and dimly realized what he could better articulate later, that the civil rights movement was the nation’s chance to redeem itself.



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I had meant to post this last Thursday, on the 45th anniversary of Liuzzo's murder. Circumstances prevented that, but I wanted to say this; to tell this story. I just want to repeat that I am not trying to say that her death was more important than those of King or Evers, or Emmett Till, or the four girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, or countless others. It's just that this was the one that affected me.
P, I am sad to say I am old enough to remember this also. What really got me were the viscous dogs unleashed on those poor people. In my young mind, I could not compute how they could do this. I had been raised in the military and my Dad's best friend was Black. It was indeed a terrible time in our nations history. Great Post!
There is nothing racist about the fact that what "smacked" you, initially, was something close to your own life and understanding. If the end result was that you became aware of great injustice, a possibly shallow means becomes irrelevant. I think most of us need something to touch us on a personal level for it to become part of our human experience and not just a story someone tells us.
hat morning, he grasped the simple truth that segregation and racism were just wrong and dimly realized what he could better articulate later, that the civil rights movement was the nation’s chance to redeem itself.

Sadly, so many years later, it still is. We seem to have so much trouble with this, and for the life of me I can't understand why.

Excellent post, AHP. I think there comes a moment when each of us is touched by a specific event that brings a greater understanding of the whole. It does not diminish any prior events - it simply is our "AHA!" moment.
Thank you for marking the day of Viola Liuzzo's death.

Well done Pilgrim. Well done.
What a tragic and horrible incident.
Thank you for calling our attention to the background story and to the anniversary of that brave woman's death.
It does not matter whether it was a sign of shallowness that this particular episode awakened in you the knowledge that there was unfairness and inequity in this country. The important thing was you WERE made aware and you did something about it with the way you lived your life from then on. Besides, let's face it, most things effecting young boys are almost always's who we are.
You, my friend, have become a credit to your race....the HUMAN race.
scanner: Yes. Those attacks--just so horrible.

Ann: "And not just a story." Yeah, I think you hit it dead on.

Bill: Quite right: Epiphanies come at different times and in different ways. Thank you.

monkey: Thank you, truly.

Steve: And to you, Steve.

Tor: Yes, we are rather like the puddles on the asphalt: quite shallow (and easily dried up). Honored that you think so.
I'm glad you remember and make the connection whatever the reason. I too have not been able to forget what happened when I was so young. I remember the hate and anger that could destroy everything, all of us could easily be consumed.

There is too much hate and anger around, this is a time when I need to remember we have the chance to redeem ourselves, as a nation and as individuals. Thank you for your honesty and thanks for the reminder.
Yes, I remember all that. Great piece. Movingly written.
Beautiful and moving. Most of us remember where we were when JFK was shot, but your story shows a moment that most of us have forgotten - when we realized what is right and what is wrong.
That "kid" was capable of empathy at his young age. While rascist adults surrounding the circumstances were not. These are the moments that hit home then -- and forever. Thank you for this story and the spirit within.
What a sad time in our history. And I would just say that this was the beginning of your understanding...
I remember this. We should never forget the injustice, as the racists posing as tea baggers raise their hatred and violence again.
Like you, I remember being appalled at what I was seeing on the TV news. I was about 13-14 years old when all this was happening, living in the South, son of a father who had his own deep seated prejudices from a hard upbringing in the hills of Kentucky, but who was also aghast. Outstanding post. Thanks.
Beautifully told and very moving. Today's "tea baggers" are the same people that opposed civil rights with so much violence and hatred.
Eleven and a half.

That's crucial - we choose, around then, to go one way or another.

It's all about the catalyst, isn't it. Being smacked by news, in this instance. About to go to school. Making up our minds.
That's an age we need to make sure children are informed and open in. That's the age that makes all the difference.

Thanks so much for this Mr Pilgrim,
Made a difference to my day - and skilfully told.
I was just a toddler when all this was happening, and am always appalled at the awful things that happened during that era. Thanks for telling such a personal and eloquent story.
Good work, Pilgrim. As a southerner, I regard your post as one from the "Lest We Forget" file. I'm old enough to remember when the Woolworth's store in the Belvedere Shopping Center had a "colored" water fountain in it. And I can remember thinking as a little boy: "Why to they need that, you never see any colored people around here anyway." I was clueless, but I did have sense enough to notice that black people must be hidden away somewhere. I had no idea what segregation was or what was happening all around me in the South, but pretty soon, I started seeing bits of it on television and before long I "got it" like you did. I remember reading "Soul On Ice" by Eldridge Cleaver, another book that should probably be on one of those lists, at some point and being completely blown away by it. Things have changed, obviously, but there are still some disturbing vestiges of the Jim Crow south still around. I was talking to a man I liked and respected a few years ago about the quarterback situation at the local high school. One of the candidates for the job was black, and when the man began his evaluation of the black quarterback's skill set, a string of ignorant racial horse shit rolled out of his mouth that was so appalling I had no idea how to respond. I lost every ounce of respect I had for the man. Anyway, sorry to go on so long, but it's an important topic. Thanks.
These moments in life that smack us into consciousness, and make it personal aren't moments we choose. They just happen, and we have to be grateful when they do. Thanks for posting this.
There's nothing shallow about recognizing injustice. There's no knowing what will trigger that quantum leap. And you had no control over what you would see on TV that particular day. But I'd have to say you drew the best possible conclusion from it.
Her death was unknown to me until I had to prepare a lesson plan for teaching a reading selection on the Little Rock Nine. I had to do a bit of research to help my students understand the complexities of American history as they were not very familiar with it.

All heroes, the big and the small, must be remembered. For Ms. Liuzzo was such.
The fact that an eleven year old was made aware of such an important notion as equality is a testament to how she changed history.
How all their sacrifices, be they black or white, changed us all.
Thank you, Pilgrim. I've learned much from your post as well as all the comments which follow. Rated gratefully.
l'Heure: Thank you for your kind words and for responding with love and hope.

Bonnie: Thanks back!

john: Glad to have moved you.

Ardee: So many seminal moments we have lived through! So many!

Elisa: You're quite right, of course. When we remember what it meant, as well as what happened, is when we really keep the truth alive. A good thing for historians to recall.

Scarlett: Thank you, ma'am. But then, the kid also has to wonder, if he'd been there, how would he have acted? There but for the grace of god, or accidents of birth.

Julie: You mean, it took everything a long time to sink in? You're right about that!

OE: I know that there are some who sympathize with the worries of the teabaggers who are not racists. We cannot condemn them all.

Walter: Being so close must have made it resonate even more for you. And you were blessed to have a father who saw the wrongness in it.

McKenna: Some people legitimately worry about encroachments of the government without being racist. Only condemn those who truly are.

kim: Thank you. You're right that those are important years then. Blessings if we're led the right way.

sweetfeet: Thank you for finding it eloquent.

T Mike: Now that I think of it, I remember driving through Georgia with my grandparents in the summer of '62 as we went from Detroit to Florida, and I was truly shocked by the shacks we saw and the people picking cotton in the fields by hand. I felt that I was in a time warp. And perhaps that was a memory that was formative as well.

Bell: Usually when I'm smacked, it's unconsciousness. . . . And thanks.

Shiral: Drawn to the light side, I guess. Thankfully.

vanessa: I hope your kids got the message. I truly do. It is so important to know how we got here.

Fusun: Accepted gratefully.
Sweet Pilgrim.

Here's what I think, I think no one could assume that little eleven year old boy of anything close to racism. Really, read this again:

"He thought about those semi-orphaned children, living in his own city. Hearing her getting ready for work, he thought about his own mother and what he would do had it been her. And he wondered how somebody could kill a person like that."

And then think about context of the time. Had the other murders, the murders of the black victims received the press coverage that Mrs. Liuzzo's did? Probably not, in the most terrible of truths. Your little eleven year old self likely knew nothing of them due to the injustice that precluded you from even hearing about them.

Thank you for this piece. I read it late last night and thought about it all day today.

Much love to you and your family.
waking: Thank you for giving this so much thought--I feel deeply honored, and touched. And thank you for being so generous.
There was nothing shallow about that 11-year-old. Look at who he turned into.

The doors of life's realities open later for some, never for others.

But for that kid, I'm not surprised that they opened earlier than most.
OM: Too kind. But thank you.
Thank you for posting the link to your blog on Torrito's blog today. I wanted to take the time to thank you also for remembering my mom Viola Liuzzo. She was an exceptional human being, and a wonderful mother. The best. I am forever grateful to anyone who preserves her memory. She deserved to be remembered. Tomorrow she will be gone 46 years. On that day our lives changed forever. Warmest regards,
Sally Liuzzo-Prado